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August 08, 2022

Red Light

By Mel Trent

In the pitch black of his nightmares, Jack Runner heard the frantic flutter of wings. Feathers beat against his hands and his face. He was fighting something, aware in a haze of adrenaline that he was fighting for his life and that he was going to lose. Sharp pain ripped down the left side of his head. Just like the stroke, he thought. The blackness went deep purple at the edges and cold. His movements were slowing as if the air around him were hardening.

Jack woke up when his body impacted a solid surface in the dream. He sat up, shaking and sweating, his vision filled with the red glare of the stop light at the end of his road. The light wasn't just close. It was right on top of him.

He slipped out of bed and pulled on his pants. He looked over his shoulder when he heard movement behind him, but his boyfriend, Julian Cross, didn't wake up. Jack was thankful that Julian was a sound sleeper and had yet to wake up when Jack's bad dreams yanked him awake.

Jack went out onto the balcony off Julian's bedroom and lit a cigarette. He tried not to think, tried to concentrate only on the chill of the misty November air on his bare skin, the stillness of Pale in the pre-dawn dimness and the smell of snow. It didn't matter what he put in its way; the thought was unavoidable.

I'm going to die today.

His cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He didn't want to answer it, but he knew if he didn't, it wouldn't stop. He could spend the day hiding in Julian's bed, but he would have to answer that call eventually. He would have to come to the end of his road.

Jack frowned at the caller ID display. Why was Dr. Henry calling him at this hour? Because something's wrong, and whatever it is, it means I'm going to die today. If he didn't answer, Dr. Henry would call back until he did. It was that urgent. Might as well get it over with.

"Hey, doc," he said.

"Hello, Jack. I need to talk to you."

"Talk."

"In person."

"Can it wait? I'm not -- "

"No, it can't."

"I'm not at home."

"I figured that out when you didn't answer your land line. I wouldn't have called you at this hour if this were something that could wait. It's about Icarus."

Jack didn't know what was so important about Greek mythology, but hearing the name filled him with dread.

"Jack?"

"I'll be right there."

Jack went back inside and began to get dressed.

Julian woke up and reached over to hook a finger into the belt loop on the back of Jack's pants. "Hey," he said. "Where are you going?"

Jack turned, leaned across the bed and kissed Julian. He wondered if it were their last kiss. "Work," he said.

Julian glanced at the clock. "This early?"

"Ghosts don't sleep."

"Guess not. Call me later."

"I love you."

"Love you, too."

Jack didn't say goodbye when he left. He wouldn't have been able to get the word out of his mouth.

Jack knocked on the door of Dr. Henry's apartment. Dr. Henry opened it before Jack had a chance to lower his arm. Dr. Henry pulled him inside as if someone or something in the hall would hurt them if they stayed there too long.

"Thank you for coming, Jack," Dr. Henry said.

"Maybe you better tell me what the fuck is going on before you thank me," Jack said.

Henry McSorley was in his 70s, but the years hadn't yet begun to bend him over. Being old suited him, like a comfortable old coat. When he waved Jack into the kitchen, Jack saw that something worse than age was crippling his doctor. Dr. Henry was scared of something.

Jack sat down at the table. Dr. Henry poured two mugs of coffee and pulled an envelope out of a drawer before he sat down. He put the envelope on the table, and they both stared at it with a heavy sense of foreboding.

"Dr. Henry ... " Jack said.

Dr. Henry didn't look up. "I hate to do this to you," he said. "I hoped I would never need to tell you about Project Icarus. Forgetting what they did to you was a blessing."

Jack picked up the envelope, opened the clasp and let the contents slide out onto the table. Several snapshots of a young boy were clipped to an inch-thick sheaf of papers. Jack stared at the boy's face. He knew that face, could almost remember seeing that face light up with a sweet smile, almost remember taking that face in his hands, staring into those grey eyes and kissing those lips. There was a jump drive in the envelope, too, and Jack picked it up just to have something to do other than look at the familiar stranger and half-remember things he may have done with the boy.

"Those are copies of all my reports on the project," Dr. Henry said, indicating the papers and the photos. "The jump drive contains everything you found in the Agency's database. It's not just Icarus."

"I don't understand."

"You gave me the jump drive the day you had the stroke. Or rather you dropped it through the mail slot at the clinic."

Jack had no memory of that day aside from the facts that it had been snowing and that he had had a terrible headache. He had only inferred from what little Sam told him afterwards that he had been up to something that had the potential to seriously damage the Agency's reputation. The Agency is terrified of you, Sam had said. Don't ever forget that. And Jack hadn't. "Why are you giving this to me now?" he asked.

"Your life is in danger, and you need to know why."

"From the Agency?"

"No. They did their damage already. I don't know for sure, but I think ... I think Azrael's brother has gotten through the portal."

Jack wanted to ask who Azrael was and what portal Dr. Henry was talking about and what any of this mess had to do with him, but he couldn't get any of those questions into coherent forms. His head was starting to throb. He took a long drink from the mug. "I don't get it," he said. "I don't remember anything. Stop talking around the issue, and tell me what the fuck is going on. Please."

"Dr. Tobin was stabbed to death last night. This morning, rather. When we shut the project down, you told me that Azrael's brother had found out the two of you were ... intimate."

"I was sleeping with him?"

"You were in love with each other. Apparently, his brother didn't like that he was coming over here and threatened to do something about it. I don't know what, but you seemed convinced it would be violence against everyone involved with the project. The Agency blocked the portal, but even then, you insisted it wouldn't be enough."

"If he is after everyone, you need to -- "

"I'm not going anywhere, Jack. He'll find me. He'll find you. He'll find everyone."

"What am I supposed to do? I can't stop him."

"I know."

"Then why -- "

"I want you to know the truth. What we did to you and Azrael back then, what you found out they were doing to others."

"Why didn't you tell me this seven years ago?"

"I was glad you forgot it all. You don't have to forgive me for keeping this from you, but I did it because I care about you, Jack."

"And you felt guilty about whatever part you played in it."

"Immensely."

Jack finished his coffee and stared at the bottom of the empty mug for a while. He couldn't be mad at Dr. Henry. Dr. Henry was the only one of the Agency doctors who cared about him as a person and truly had his best interests in mind. If Dr. Henry thought it was a good idea to keep Project Icarus a secret from its subject, Jack could live with that. He put everything back in the envelope and stood up.

Dr. Henry looked up.

"So I can't stop Ramiel," Jack said. "Fuck it. But I can stop something like this from happening again. That's what the jump drive is about, right?"

"You remember his name?"

"Whose?"

"Azrael's brother. Ramiel. You just ... "

Jack shrugged. "Things get knocked loose in my head all the time."

"Just be careful."

"I will."

Jack didn't have a plan. He didn't know enough to make any kind of plan. Then again, whatever he did, he was going to die. Plans didn't really matter.

He did, however, know that he wanted to be able to use what little of his abilities he could get at. Taking his medications had become so automatic that there were days he couldn't remember if he had taken them. If he did forget, his body quickly reminded him. Deliberately skipping his meds took a monumental act of will, and it hurt almost as much as the migraine he would get later. That was what whiskey was for.

He sat at the kitchen table taking shots of whiskey and chasing them with coffee, chain smoking and reading through the printed report Dr. Henry had given him. He hoped for and dreaded any memories the report might drag up, but there was nothing. Not of tests, psychological or physical; not of Azrael; not of the fear he must have felt knowing that, whatever they did to him, he would always end up the same. Sitting right here, drinking this coffee and this whiskey, smoking this very cigarette and counting down his life in hours.

His cell phone buzzed. He almost recognized the number on the display. Almost but not quite. He probably should have let it go to voice mail, but why avoid anything on his path today? "Who is this?" he asked.

"Jack?" the man asked. Again, vaguely familiar but just out of reach. "Jack, I'm so relived to hear your voice. I -- "

"Who the fuck are you?"

"Brian Bennett."

Before he left town, Sam had asked Jack about a man named Brian Bennett. Jack had had no recollection of the name, and Sam hadn't elaborated. When he had gotten out of the hospital, he had found Brian's business card on his kitchen table. He could have called the number then and solved the mystery, but he hadn't had the strength, mentally or physically, to start opening up all the doors the stroke had slammed shut. He'd burned the card and hoped he'd never find out who Brian was or what he knew.

"Jack?"

"What do you want?"

"To help you."

"You can't."

"I'm not trying to save you. I know better than that. But you can't take on the Agency on your own now any more than you could seven years ago."

"Apparently, you weren't much help then. I don't see how you'd be any now."

"We had a plan, Jack, and you completely ignored it."

"I tend to do that."

"Do you remember anything?"

"No."

"Shall I tell you what happened?"

"You know?"

Brian paused for a moment. Jack thought he heard Brian sigh.

"You know what, Bennett? Don't. I don't wanna know. I don't need to know."

"I don't want to repeat the same mistakes."

"Mine or yours?"

"Both."

"I appreciate your concern, but fuck off. I'm doing this alone."

"But -- "

Jack hung up before Brian could make any more arguments he would ignore. When his phone began to buzz again, same number, Jack didn't answer. It wouldn't be the last time Brian tried to get in touch with him. Brian could wait.

He went back to reading the report, and by the time he was done, he knew where to start.

The gas log fireplace in Jack's living room had never worked, and the previous resident had loosened a panel on one side and built a small shelf behind it. It was a convenient hiding place for important and sensitive items. Jack kept a small fireproof box there that contained his birth certificate, social security card, a copy of his will and similar documents.

One of those things was Sam Winston's phone number. Sam had been forced to retire, leave Pale and not contact Jack after Jack's stroke. That had been harder on Jack than Sam had probably realized. Sam was Jack's one complete connection to the memories the stroke had taken. To have that connection so thoroughly excised was excruciating.

Every day for six months, Jack had had to talk himself out of tracking Sam down. When he had finally given in and found Sam, he hadn't called but had locked Sam's number away, unwilling to put either of them through that pain. What would he have said anyway? "I don't remember a fucking thing about you, but I love you, and I miss you, and I want you to come home"? Come home to what? Jack wasn't Jack any more. He was the Agency-friendly version of Jack, and that wasn't the man Sam had been in love with.

But that was seven years ago. It wouldn't hurt so much now to call and say "I need your help, please come home." Would it?

Jack listened to the phone ringing and had the strange sensation that he was calling not just across miles but years, as if he had been paused seven years ago and was now trying to call ahead to find out how things were supposed to go. As if that made any sense. He poured out another shot of whiskey but didn't get it down before someone answered the phone.

"Hello?" a man said. It wasn't Sam. For a moment, Jack couldn't say anything. It never occurred to him that Sam would have a partner. "Hello," the man said again, annoyed now.

"May I speak with Sam, please?" Jack asked.

"Who's calling?"

Hang up now, this is a fucking bad idea, Jack thought.

"Who is this?"

"Sorry. I'm sorry. I ... this is Jack."

The man on the other end of the phone line, hundreds of miles and seven years in the future, was silent. Of course he would know who Jack was. Sam wouldn't have kept any of that from him.

Jack waited for the man to say that Sam wasn't there or wouldn't talk to him or to simply hang up the phone. Jack wouldn't blame him for that and wouldn't try to call back if that was how it ended. Served him right.

"Hang on," the man said.

Jack took his shot of whiskey and lit another cigarette while he waited. He looked out the window. Snow was drifting down from a sky that looked too bright. The past was repeating itself.

"Jack?" Sam sounded terrified.

"Hi, Sam."

"Jack ... god, Jack. It's been so long."

"I know."

"How long did it take you to find me?"

"When I finally started looking, an hour maybe. The Agency didn't hide you as well as they thought. But that was seven years ago. I didn't think it was a good idea to try to call you then."

"I ... um ..."

"I'm not calling just for the hell of it."

"I didn't think you were."

"I need to know the name of my recruiting officer."

"Jack ..."

"I have to do this, Sam."

"You don't. You really don't. They could have killed you last time. What makes you think they won't this time? Didn't you learn anything?"

"I learned that they don't know how to clean up after themselves."

"Please, Jack, don't do this."

"They aren't going to kill me. That's never been their privilege."

"You're going to die today." It wasn't a question. Sam said it almost reverently, as if he were witnessing a prophecy come true.

"So's the Agency."

"Her name was Leland. Sue Leland."

"Thank you, Sam."

"You're welcome. Goodbye, Jack."

Jack hung up, put his head down on his arms and tried to cry.

Even with a name to put to the letters in Dr. Henry's report, Jack didn't have the whole picture. The recruiting officers didn't know any more than the doctors. They were all getting orders from somewhere else. But where?

It's higher than the head of the Agency, Jack remembered saying to Brian. Neither of them had known then, but Jack recalled thinking that it wasn't human. Sue Leland would tell him the truth whether she wanted to or not.

Jack was halfway to the front door when there was urgent knocking from the other side. Before he had a chance to decide on any reaction, Julian opened the door and came in. He locked the door behind him and turned to face Jack.

"What?" Jack asked. He knew something was wrong from Julian's expression.

"I know you didn't," Julian said. "I know you wouldn't, but please tell me you didn't kill Dr. Tobin."

"I didn't kill him. What -- "

"Donovan and Sasha came down to the station to take over the case and four other apparently related murders. They've got orders to take you in."

"What the fuck? I -- "

"Is that why you left so early this morning?"

"Dr. Henry called me. He wanted to talk in person. He told me about Tobin when I went over there. He didn't say anything about any others."

"All people who were working at Baymont Asylum when you were there."

"This is the first I'm hearing about it." Ramiel, it seemed, was being thorough.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the murders. It's about why you were in Baymont in the first place."

"Yeah, all that shit I can't fucking remember."

"We need to get out of here."

Jack nodded and followed Julian out. He looked over his shoulder as he pulled the door shut. The ghost hand was waving at him. Goodbye, Audra, he thought. He couldn't remember having learned her name or seen her face, but he knew he would never see her again.

Jack fiddled with his lighter while Julian drove. He tried to think of something to say that would get Julian to leave him alone, but all of it had already been said. After dating for a year, Julian had asked Jack to move in with him. Jack had refused, had refused to explain why he refused, and for a week, they had barely spoken. Friday night, Julian had demanded an explanation, and Jack had relented. They had spent the rest of the weekend in bed, except for a few hours Sunday night at Jack's parents' house for dinner. There was nothing Jack knew that Julian didn't. He still wasn't sure how he felt about that.

Julian parked the car under the rusted and tilting canopy over the driveway of an abandoned motel near Darkside. "You wanna tell me what's going on?" he asked.

"Not really," Jack said. He handed Julian the report Dr. Henry had given him and then got out of the car. He lit a cigarette and paced while Julian read the report.

When Julian finished reading, he tossed the pages onto the passenger seat. After a minute, he got out of the car. He stood in the path of Jack's pacing, and when Jack was facing him, he pulled Jack into his arms. They held each other tightly for a long time.

"I can't believe they did that to you," Julian said.

"I don't remember any of it," Jack said.

"I can't ... I mean, you were just a kid. And the angel ..."

"Azrael."

"He was just a kid, too. That's just ..."

Jack let go of Julian and looked into his eyes. "That's why this has to stop. It has to stop now. We weren't the only ones."

"And Tobin?"

"It's Azrael's brother. He finally broke through the blocks the Agency put up, and he wants revenge."

"And you're not gonna try to stop him?"

"I can't. I'm cured. I don't have the kind of power I need to fight him. I didn't take my drugs this morning, but I don't think that's enough. The computer still fucks with my brain waves."

"Is there a way to shut it down?"

Jack winced at a sudden flash of memory. Brian had the means to shut the computer down and had done so seven years ago. "It's probably not a good idea."

"But if -- "

"I think that's why I had a stroke."

"So if the angel doesn't kill you, your brain might. Or the Agency might."

Jack shook his head. "The Agency can't afford to kill me. It's the angel or another stroke."

Julian looked up at the underside of the canopy. "What do we do?"

"We don't do anything. I -- "

"Fuck that. If this is the last day I get to spend with you, there's no fucking way I'm leaving your side until it's over. Do you really expect me to go back to the station and go through the rest of the day pretending this isn't happening?"

"That's my first choice, yes, because I don't want you to get hurt."

"You're gonna die, Jack. You think that doesn't hurt?"

Jack said nothing. Of course it hurt, would hurt. Hurt wasn't even a strong enough word for what Julian was going to go through once Jack was dead. Jack lit another cigarette and went back to pacing.

"Jack ..."

"I have proof of what the Agency does to people like me. Seven years ago, I found a bunch of the Agency's files on their special projects, and I put them on a jump drive. Before I had the stroke, I gave the drive to Dr. Henry. I guess I figured that if something happened to me, I didn't want that on me. He gave it back to me this morning. So I have all the proof again."

"So we, what, give it to a national news outlet or something?"

Jack shook his head. "That would make a mess, but they'd get out of it eventually. It wouldn't stop anything. I need a permanent solution. I need to shut the Agency down."

"How?"

"Find out who gives the orders, first of all. It starts with the recruiting officers."

"Who's only mentioned by initials in Dr. Henry's reports."

"I called Sam. Her name's Sue Leland."

"Who gives her orders?"

"The head of the Agency, but what I need to know is who gives him orders."

"You wanna just walk into her office and demand answers? At Agency headquarters? Are you fucking crazy?"

"Yes. I have a disease, remember? I'm psychic."

Before Julian could respond, the sound of a car door closing got their attention. A car neither of them recognized had pulled in behind Julian's. A blonde man in a dark suit was walking towards them, forcing a friendly smile.

"Who the fuck -- " Julian said.

"Bennett," Jack said.

Brian's smile, for a second, softened into something genuine. "It's good to see you, Jack," he said.

Jack didn't share the sentiment and said nothing.

Brian held his hand out to Julian. "Brian Bennett," he said.

Julian took Brian's hand and gave Jack a skeptical glance. "Julian Cross," he said.

"You're Agency?"

"No. Homicide."

"So you're ... I see."

"What do you want, Bennett?" Jack asked.

"I told you. I want to help you."

"And I told you to fuck off."

"You did. And yet, here I am."

Brian did seem to have the uncanny ability to find Jack wherever he was. No, that's not disturbing at all, Jack thought.

"What exactly is your plan, Jack?" Brian asked.

Jack shrugged.

"You don't have a plan, do you?"

"Why are you giving me shit about this? It's not your fight, and I don't get the feeling you give a fuck about me."

"I do give a fuck about you. You and every creature like you. Psychics, ghosts, demons, angels ... all of you."

"What d'you mean creatures like ... oh. Oh fuck." Jack pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes as the brief memory tore itself loose. His grandmother's ghost had told him what he was right before he'd let Brian shut off his computer. "I'm part kitsune. I'm not even human. No wonder they tortured me for so fucking long. Fuck."

"The Fraternity's mission hasn't changed, Jack. You have the key to stopping this mess once and for all."

"No, I have part of it. We still don't know who or what gives the orders, and that's what I'm going to find out."

"I'm not letting you run amok on them this time."

Jack said nothing.

"I turned off your computer so you could use your full powers. Instead of sticking to the plan we had decided on, you went to Baymont to rescue Azrael. You tore the place apart and let all the inmates out. Some got away, but most of them were recaptured. A few of them were killed. You did a lot more harm than good, and your brain blew a gasket for your troubles."

Jack wondered if Brian meant to make him feel chastened with that information. He didn't; it made him angry.

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-10-17
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